A Response to John Molyneux on Sexuality

Issue: 140

Colin Wilson

John Molyneux has intervened in a debate concerning the history of sexuality.1 Sexuality has been a subject of serious study only in the last 40 years, the field emerging from the women’s and gay movements of the 1970s. Lesbian and gay authors began its development by unearthing a history that included the movement headed by Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany before and after the First World War, the development of struggles in 1950s America, and the inspiring example of the Russian Revolution.2

However, as they examined a wider range of periods and cultures, historians began to find problems with the concept “lesbian and gay history”. They found that people in the past, and in other cultures today, thought and behaved around sexuality in ways very different from our own. They did not divide human beings up into categories like “gay”, “straight” and “bi”, or even place people on a spectrum depending on how much they desired men and/or women. In fact, they did not put people into social categories at all based on the sex of the people they desired.

The claim that “homosexuals” and “heterosexuals” had not existed in the past, and did not exist in other societies in the present, was controversial. It contradicted everyday common sense, but it also conflicted with an LGBT politics that wanted to win equality within capitalism for a fixed minority of homosexual people. Those arguing for the new “constructionist” view—that ideas and practices about sexuality varied greatly between cultures and periods—faced opposition from “essentialists”. Homosexual and heterosexual people, the essentialists claimed, existed in all societies, even if attitudes to them differed and vocabularies varied.3

For 20 years the constructionist view has dominated the history of sexuality: historian after historian has found that it fits the evidence. In my article in International Socialism I cited work on ancient Greece, and the case of the “Ladies of Llangollen” in Georgian Britain.4 Further examples reinforce the point. Michael Rocke cites evidence that in Renaissance Florence two thirds of men under 40 were formally implicated in sodomy: many men had same-sex relationships in their teens and 20s, but later married and fathered children. The work of Matt Houlbrook makes it clear that, in 1950s London, working class men involved in same-sex acts were typically either effeminate “queans” or masculine men (“trade”), who had sex with women, but also would have sex with men in return for favours or money.5

Nor did lesbians and heterosexual women exist in the past. In 1811 Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie were involved in a legal case in Scotland. They ran a school together and, after being accused of being involved in a sexual relationship and losing all their pupils they sued one of their accusers. Their lawyers did not deny that the two women were in love and shared a bed. They even submitted a letter to the court in which Jane wrote of Marianne that “I have loved her for eight years with sincere and ardent affection”. In our time such love means women are lesbians—but no such concept existed in early 19th century Scotland. Woods and Pirie won their libel case.6

Boundaries of sexuality, love and friendship also vary over time. A medieval tradition of “sworn friendship” involved men publicly committing themselves to a non-sexual but binding partnership. They might even be buried together, as were John Gostlin and Thomas Legge in Caius College, Cambridge—their memorial reads “Love joined them living. So may the earth join them in their burial. O Legge, Gostlin’s heart you have still with you”.7

As John Molyneux points out, finally, the social construction of sexuality is associated with the ideas of Michel Foucault. Foucault contrasts the earlier conception of “sodomy” as “a category of forbidden acts” with that of “the homosexual”—”a personage, a past, a case history and a childhood”. He argues that “the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species”.8

This is what it means to say that sexuality is “socially constructed”. What are John’s objections to this view? First, he interprets it as a claim that sex is purely social or cultural, with no connection to the biological human body. But this is not what “social construction” means. Leading LGBT historian Jeffrey Weeks addresses the point directly:

Sexuality is a highly social phenomenon, and as society changes so must sexuality. Does that mean that nature has nothing to do with it? Not quite. Sexuality builds on biological potentials… But we must also recognise that sexuality, like everything else, attains meaning only in culture. We just cannot understand the subtleties and complexities of the sexual world if we try to reduce everything to the imperatives of Nature…9

Weeks’s view that sexuality “builds on biological potentials” echoes John’s formulation that sexuality is “biologically based but then profoundly socially conditioned”. John’s opposition to social construction is, then, a combat with a straw man of his own creation.

John’s second point is that social construction is associated with Foucault. Foucault’s general approach is anti-Marxist, and from time to time he is simply abusive about the Marxist tradition. But this does not mean that he cannot produce useful historical insights. In particular, as to whether homosexuals and heterosexuals have existed throughout history, a large body of evidence now supports Foucault’s view, and there is no point trying to disregard this.

Social construction was accepted in the 1980s by historians and some LGBT activists, but the view that sex is the direct result of biology remains everyday common sense. Some LGBT people share this view, such as the neuroscientist Simon LeVay, who argues that gay men and lesbians are biologically different from straight people. He cites studies showing that gay men are lighter at birth than the male average, and that lesbians tend to have longer legs than straight women.10 LeVay has a political agenda—to oppose homophobia by arguing that lesbians and gay men can no more choose our sexual desires than we can choose our hair colour—but such a strategy is flawed. Scientific claims that gay men and lesbians are biologically different from straight people were made by gay campaigners in Weimar Germany—far from undermining oppression, they only reinforced Nazi homophobia. LeVay’s approach can’t account for bisexual experience. But the overwhelming problem is that he takes the existence of homosexual and heterosexual people in all societies for granted. So the social construction of sexuality can be of political as well as academic importance.

Finally, John argues against ideas which most socialists have accepted for some 20 years. My pamphlet Socialists and Gay Liberation, published in the mid-1990s, states that “sexuality changes through history, and between different societies”. The International Socialism article “LGBT Politics and Sexual Liberation”, from 2007, claims that “sexuality is not a biological essence, unchanging through history…it is ‘socially constructed’.” John’s rejection of social construction as a “concession to bourgeois ideology” finds a problem where one was never detected before.11

Finally, we should clarify the relationship between sexuality and reproduction. We are animals, and our species will die out if it doesn’t reproduce itself. There is a clear evolutionary advantage to sexual pleasure, since it motivates humans to take part in many acts, some of which can lead to conception. So there is a link between sex and reproduction, but sexual pleasure also leads humans and our nearest relatives to perform non-reproductive acts. Among bonobo chimps, for example, the most common sexual acts are for same-sex couples to rub their genitals together. So we mustn’t conflate sexual acts and reproduction, even among animals.12

Among humans the existence of culture (thanks to our big brains) makes the relationship between sex and reproduction even more complex. Marx compares bees and humans: the bee can only build hexagonal wax cells, while humans create many different structures. Likewise, animals follow stereotyped mating rituals. Among birds, the male blue-footed booby dances to show the female his bright blue feet—the colour indicates good health. The male bower bird attracts a mate by building a shelter from sticks, while many birds do so by singing.13 Humans lack mating rituals: people follow particular cultural practices regarding courtship or seduction. In the Middle Ages parents of a wealthy couple often arranged their marriage, and they might see each other for the first time on their wedding day, while people in our society choose their own partners.

A Marxist analysis of sexuality must avoid two dangers. One is to treat sex as connected purely with pleasure, with no reference to reproduction. It is precisely because certain sex acts can lead to conception that the ruling class are concerned to regulate sexual behaviour—they want to be sure the working class will continue to be reproduced. But conception is only one part of the picture. John writes that no society has forbidden heterosexual vaginal sex and I certainly don’t know of one. But heterosexual vaginal sex is in many cultures surrounded by social restrictions. To refer again to the Middle Ages, sexual acts were forbidden before a couple married, which typically took place when the man reached his late 20s and the woman her mid-20s—so both went through a long fertile period without reproducing. Once they were married, sex was forbidden on more than half of the days in the year—Sundays, saints’ days and so forth. Cultural controls on vaginal intercourse play an important social role, which is often far more complicated that simply encouraging conception.14

This is even more true today, when most heterosexual couples use contraception so as to separate sexual pleasure from reproduction, and when most people enjoy various non-reproductive sexual acts. Indeed, social and technological changes are undermining common sense assumptions about sex and reproduction. In some jurisdictions two men can be recognised as parents of a child born to a surrogate mother. In the UK a lesbian couple can be recognised as parents of a child born following donor insemination. Transgender men have given birth in Germany, Israel, the UK and the United States.15

These developments mean it’s untrue to say that “women are able to bear children and men are not”. John shows no understanding here of the politicisation of trans oppression, and the importance of avoiding statements about men and women which ignore trans people’s existence. John’s attitude to non-reproductive sexualities is equally offensive. His conflation of sex and reproduction means that he makes reproductive acts (heterosexual vaginal intercourse) into a normative standard, while non-procreative acts, such as those performed by same-sex couples, are implicitly categorised as peripheral. This is certainly what LGBT activists call heteronormative, if not actually homophobic.

John begins by stating that “I lack the knowledge…needed to offer a comprehensive response” to the articles he criticises. That being so, it’s hard to understand why he has written on this topic, and why the editor of International Socialism has published his writing. One can only, regretfully, conclude that they are motivated by factionalism, and want to respond to articles because of their positions on disagreements inside the Socialist Workers Party. That approach will not help resolve the issues we’re debating here. And we must hope that as many as possible of those involved in our recent crisis will remain active as revolutionary socialists—committed to, as part of that fight, the liberation of sexuality and of women—whether or not they continue to do so as part of the SWP. A coherent account of sexuality will help us all in those future struggles, but John does not help us to develop one.


1: Molyneux, 2013, commenting on Lindisfarne and Neale, 2013, and Wilson, 2013.

2: For example, see Weeks, 1977; Lauritsen and Thorstad, 1974; Steakley, 1975.

3: For an account of the constructionist-essentialist debate, see Kuefler, 2006.

4: Wilson, 2013.

5: Rocke, 1996, pp115-121; Houlbrook, 2005.

6: Faderman, 1985a, pp147-153. See also 1985b.

7: Bray, 2003, p88.

8: Foucault, 1981, p43.

9: Weeks, 2011, p18.

10: LeVay, 2011, pp223-5.

11: Wilson, 1995, p7; Wilson, 2007, p138.

12: de Waal, 1995.

13: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue-footed_Booby, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bower_bird, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birdsong.

14: Karras, 2005, p75.

15: Usher, 2012; Beckford, 2009; Spottiswoode, 2013; Brener, 2011; Pinknews, 2012; Califia-Rice, 2000.


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Bray, Alan, 2003, The Friend (University of Chicago Press)

Brener, Neri, 2011, “Israeli man gives birth” Ynet news (30 Dec) www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4169089,00.html

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